A Distant View of English Journal, 1912-2012

Jason Palmeri & Ben McCorkle



Film & Video: Production vs. Reception Over Time
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English teachers were initially quite ambivalent when the silent film came on the scene. In the first article on film in English Journal, Robert W. Neal (1913) felt compelled to assert humorously:

The moving picture is not an invention of the devil. There is a great deal in it, at the present stage of its development, that we have to think of with all the optimistic faith summonable in order not to regard it as excessively satanic. (p. 658)

After assuaging fears that the motion picture was a tool of Satan, Neal then offered suggestions for how English teachers might engage students in analyzing and writing about narrative stories told in films. We found relatively few articles about silent film in the early days of the journal, and the few we found focused on pedagogies of textual reception. Perhaps Neal was right in his worry that many English teachers viewed the silent film as a tool of the devil.

Yet, when we move into the 1930s Hollywood era of the sound film, we see a great boon of interest in motion pictures among English teachers; this interest might reflect the growing influence of film in the culture at large. We also would suggest that English teachers may have been more attracted to the "talkies" because they more closely resembled the conventions of the dramatic stage plays that already played a key role in the English curriculum. We found that English teachers first turned to the sound film as an object of analysis—much as they might treat a play script by Shakespeare; however, in the later 1930s, we noted a sudden increase in teachers engaging students in composing movies.

In some cases, teachers managed to mimic the process of filmmaking by having students write and perform a film script; however, quite a few English teachers managed to work collaboratively with students and faculty to gain the means to produce short, rudimentary 16 mm films. This is remarkable given that film equipment was quite expensive and relatively inaccessible in this time period. Taking advantage of the rich cinematic environment of Los Angeles in the 1930s, Louise Whitehead (1937) managed to borrow cameras and films from three students in the class (who likely had ties to the film industry) to make a class film adaptation of scenes from David Copperfield. Teaching in Louisville, Mary Ruth Hodge (1938) managed to coordinate her class in making and screening a movie adaptation of "Lady of the Lake," by collaborating with a social studies teacher who had taken a summer institute on filmmaking pedagogy at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)—once again in Los Angeles. On the one hand, these filmmaking experiments were quite radical as they engaged students in collaborating with classmates to compose films and share them with audiences beyond the teacher; yet, we note too, despite a few mentions of using film equipment to produce student newsreels, filmmaking was positioned first and foremost as way to engage students in appreciating canonical works of print literature.

After the initial burst of enthusiasm in film production pedagogy in the late 1930s and early 1940s, there was a long period of production drought—1943 through 1967—when the journal featured no articles about film production. Yet, during this time the journal continued to feature many articles about teaching film reception. In a period in which film increasingly came to be recognized as an art form in its own right, it is not surprising that English teachers returned mostly to positioning films as texts to be analyzed (not unlike novels, poems, and plays). We also suspect that the expense and relative inaccessibility of filmmaking equipment caused many teachers to see film production as beyond their reach. In many ways, our timeline confirms Kelly Ritter's (2015) argument that the '40s and '50s were a time period in which English teachers employed film for conservative ends.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, we see another burst of interest in filmmaking pedagogy—once again in a period of great technological and social change (not unlike the 1930s). While the film production teachers in the late 1930s tended to have some kind of collaborative connection to members of the film industry, the arrival of the Super 8 camera format in 1965 began to make film production more inexpensive and technically simple for non-professionals to pursue as a hobby (Lipton, 1975). Citing the increasing proliferation of 8 mm cameras for everyday consumers as a key reason for the filmmaking boom in English classrooms, Peter Dart (1968) noted that "a simple eight millimeter camera costs less than $20.00. Four minutes of an 'off brand' color film, including processing, can be purchased for about $2.00" (p. 96). Of course, this was not an insignificant amount of money back then. Kirk Scheufele (1969) tells the story of how he failed to get the school administration to fund the $40.00 he needed for his 8 mm class film project, but he then formed a film club and got the student government to fund the project. Other teachers mention borrowing cameras and films from students (O'Keefe, 1971). In contrast to 1930s film production pedagogies which tended to feature adaptations of classic literature, late 1960s and early 1970s production pedagogies featured students composing in a wider range of genres. While Hanke (1971) stuck with the literary approach of having a class make a cinematic adaptation of the "Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock," other instructors taught students to compose their own documentary films engaging local social issues (Foley, 1971; Scheufele, 1969), instructional films teaching school subjects (Dart, 1968), examples of commercial "propaganda" (Babcock, 1967), or original fictional film narratives (O'Keefe, 1971).

As we move into the later 1970s and 1980s, we find teachers increasingly turning to video cameras for moving image production. Although video is a medium with different affordances than film, we chose to code these video pedagogies together with film as we noted that teachers tended to conceptualize video equipment as a means for making and analyzing "films." Yet, despite the proliferation of home video camera technologies in the 1980s, we didn't find the groundswell of production pedagogies that we saw with the Super 8 camera. We might surmise that interest in video in the 1980s was somewhat dampened by the larger groundswell of interest in computer-based writing in this period. In the the 1980s, the computer was clearly the most exciting form of new media for English teachers and video played second fiddle. In the 21st century, we found emerging interest in the use of digital video for filmmaking; while we could reasonably have coded these digital video articles as "computer media," we chose to code them as film/video when they focused on students using digital video technologies to craft original cinematic texts. Interestingly, while much scholarship on digital video pedagogy tends to position such video work as "new" to the field, we actually found greater interest in moving image production pedagogies in the late 1930s and early 1970s than we did in the curent century.

Commonplaces for Teaching With Film & Video

When we look at ideological commonplaces that teachers employed to make sense of film and video, we can see that teachers have consistently found the moving image to be "engaging for students" and that they have sought to harness that engagement to enhance the teaching of traditional print reading and writing. It's notable, though, that the second most prevalent commonplace we found was that film and video were "changing the nature of literacy"—often expressed as a call for English teachers to pay more attention to the unique visual affordances of film. As we look at these commonplaces, we can see a persistent tension in the field: on the one hand, teachers want to harness new media for traditional goals (e.g., enhancing appreciation of canonical literature), but they also see new media as offering an occasion to expand their conceptions of what teaching literacy entails (i.e., paying more attention to imagistic forms of meaning making).

As we review the long timeline of film and video pedagogies, we can note that film reception pedagogies have had great staying power in the field over the past 100 years; the moving image clearly has been established as a valid and important text for analysis in English classrooms. Pedagogies that focus on film/video production, however, have been much more fleeting and erratic; we see bursts of enthusiasm at moments when new film and video production technologies come on the scene, but these bursts of energy rather quickly flame out. Since we stopped coding in 2012 in the midst of an ongoing revolution in digital video technology, it's too soon to say if that pattern will repeat itself or not in relation to digital video—though we would argue that we should be cautious of the tendency to turn digital video into yet another text for analysis.